The Supreme Court returned to the stage Monday as justices weighed whether state laws can be used to challenge deceptive cigarette advertising.
The high court opened its 2008-09 term with a case crucial to business and consumer advocates alike. Multiple justices sounded skeptical about the efforts by three Maine smokers to challenge the parent company of Philip Morris under state law.
“I have difficulty in accepting your position in this entire case,” Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy told the attorney for the smokers.
Opening its business on the traditional first Monday of October, the court heard the cigarette advertising arguments while outside anti-abortion demonstrators rallied. Justices let stand without comment a lower court decision's ordering Arizona to issue “choose life” license plates to those who want them.
The issue in Altria Group v. Good is pre-emption: whether a federal cigarette-labeling law blocks state lawsuits charging deceptive practices. The stakes are high, and not just for an industry that spends upwards of $15 billion annually on advertising. Big business, in general, prefers dealing with one uniform law instead of 50 different state laws.
“If you're going to conduct a national advertising campaign, you can't do it based on what a jury might decide in Des Moines compared to what a jury might decide in Atlanta,” Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court.
Olson represents the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris. Stephanie Good, a Bangor resident who reports smoking one pack of Marlboro Lights every two or three days, joined two others in suing Altria under a state law that prohibits “deceptive acts or practices.” The smokers contend Marlboro Lights advertising tricked consumers into thinking “low tar and nicotine” cigarettes are less harmful than conventional cigarettes.